Explaining social phenomena by multilevel mechanisms13 min read

Four questions about multilevel mechanisms

In our previous post, we discussed mechanistic philosophy of science and its contribution to the cognitive social sciences. In this blog post, we will discuss three case studies of research programs at the interface of the cognitive sciences and the social sciences. In our cases, we apply mechanistic philosophy of science to make sense of the epistemological, ontological, and methodological aspects of the cognitive social sciences. Our case studies deal with the phenomena of social coordination, transactive memory, and ethnicity.

In our work, we have drawn on Stuart Glennan’s minimal account of mechanisms, according to which a mechanism for a phenomenon “consists of entities (or parts) whose activities and interactions are organized so as to be responsible for the phenomenon” (Glennan 2017: 17). We understand entities and activities liberally so as to accommodate the highly diverse sets of entities that are studied in the cognitive social sciences, from physically grounded mental representations to material artifacts and entire social systems. In our article, we make use of the following four questions drawn from William Bechtel’s (2009) work to assess the adequacy and comprehensiveness of mechanistic explanations:

  1. What is the phenomenon to be explained (‘looking at’)?
  2. What are the relevant entities and their activities (‘looking down’)?
  3. What are the organization and interactions of these entities and activities through which they contribute to the phenomenon (‘looking around’)?
  4. What is the environment in which the mechanism is situated, and how does it affect its functioning (‘looking up’)?

The visual metaphors of looking at the phenomenon to be explained, looking down at the entities and activities that underlie the phenomenon, looking around at the ways in which these entities and activities are organized, and looking up at the environment in which the mechanism operates, are intended to emphasize that mechanistic explanations are not strongly reductive or “bottom-up” explanations. Rather, multilevel mechanistic explanations can bring together more “bottom-up” perspectives from the cognitive sciences with more “top-down” perspectives from the social sciences in order to provide integrated explanations of complex social phenomena. In the following, we will illustrate how we have used mechanistic philosophy of science in our case studies and what we have learned from them.

Social Coordination

Interpersonal social coordination has been studied during recent decades in many different scientific disciplines, from developmental psychology (e.g., Carpenter&Svetlova 2016) to evolutionary anthropology (e.g., Tomasello et al. 2005) and cognitive science (e.g., Knoblich et al. 2011). However, despite their shared interests, there has so far been relatively limited interaction between different disciplinary research programs studying social coordination. In this case study, we argued that mechanistic philosophy of science can ground a feasible division of labor between researchers in different scientific disciplines studying social coordination.

In evolutionary anthropology and developmental psychology, one of the most important ideas that has gained considerable empirical support during recent decades is that human agents and our nearest primate relatives differ fundamentally in our dispositions to social coordination and cooperation: for example, chimpanzees rarely act together instrumentally in natural settings, and they are not motivated to engage in the types of social games and joint attention that human infants find intrinsically rewarding already at an early age (Warneken et al. 2006). Importantly, this does not seem to be due to a deficit in general intelligence since chimpanzees score as well as young human infants on tests of quantitative, spatial, and causal cognition (Herrmann et al. 2007). According to the shared intentionality -hypothesis of evolutionary anthropologist Michael Tomasello, this is because “human beings, and only human beings, are biologically adapted for participating in collaborative activities involving shared goals and socially coordinated action plans (joint intentions)” (Tomasello et al. 2005).

Given a basic capacity to engage in social coordination, one can raise the question of what types of cognitive mechanisms enable individuals to share mental states and act together with other individuals. To answer this question, we made use of the distinction between emergent and planned forms of coordination put forth by cognitive scientist Günther Knoblich and his collaborators. According to Knoblich et al. (2011: 62), in emergent coordination, “coordinated behavior occurs due to perception-action couplings that make multiple individuals act in similar ways… independent of any joint plans or common knowledge”. In planned coordination, ”agents’ behavior is driven by representations that specify the desired outcomes of joint action and the agent’s own part in achieving these outcomes.” Knoblich et al. (2011) discuss four different mechanisms for emergent coordination: entrainment, common object affordances, action simulation, and perception-action matching. While emergent coordination is explained primarily by sub-intentional mechanisms of action control (which space does not allow us to discuss in more detail here), planned coordination is explained by reference to explicit mental representations of a common goal, the other individuals in joint action, and/or the division of tasks between the participants.

In our article, we argued that cognitive scientists and social scientists answer different questions (see above) about mechanisms that bring about and sustain social coordination in different environments and over time. Thus they are in a position to make mutually interlocking yet irreducible contributions to a unified mechanistic theory of social coordination, although they may also sometimes reach results that challenge assumptions that are deeply ingrained in the other group of disciplines. For a more detailed discussion of how cognitive and social scientists can collaborate in explaining social coordination, we refer the reader to our article (Sarkia et al. 2020: 8-11).

Transactive Memory

Our second case study concerned the phenomenon of transactive memory, which has been studied in the fields of cognitive, organizational, and social psychology as well as in communication studies, information science, and management. The social psychologist Daniel Wegner and his colleagues (Wegner et al. 1985: 256) define transactive memory in terms of the following two components:

  1. An organized store of knowledge that is contained entirely in the individual memory systems of the group members
  2. A set of knowledge-relevant transactive processes that occur among group members.

They attribute transactive memory systems to organized groups insofar as these groups perform functionally equivalent roles in group-level information processing as individual memory mechanisms perform in individual cognition, i.e. (transactive) encoding, (transactive) storing, and (transactive) retrieving of information. For example, Wegner et al. (1985) found that close romantic couples responded to factual and opinion questions by using integrative strategies, such as interactive cueing in memory retrieval. Subsequent research on transactive memory systems has addressed small interaction groups, work teams, and organizations in addition to intimate couples (e.g., Ren & Argote 2011; Peltokorpi 2008). What is crucial for the development of a transactive memory system is that the group members have at least partially different domains of expertise and that the group members have learned about each other’s domains of expertise. If these two conditions are met, each group member can utilize the other group members’ domain-specific information in group-related cognitive tasks and transcend the limitations of their own internal memories.

In our article, we made use of the theory of transactive memory systems to argue that some cognitive mechanisms transcend the brains and bodies of individuals to the social and material environments that they inhabit. For example, in addition to brain-based memories, individual group members may also utilize material artifacts, such as notebooks, archives, and data files, as their memory stores. In addition, other members’ internal and external memory storages may in an extended sense be understood as part of the focal member’s external memory storages as long as she knows their domains of expertise and can communicate with them. Thus the theory of transactive memory can be understood as describing a socially distributed and extended cognitive system that goes beyond intra-cranial cognition (Hutchins 1995; Sutton et al. 2010). For a more detailed discussion of this thesis and its implications for interdisciplinary memory studies, we refer the reader to our article (Sarkia et al. 2011, 11-15).


The sociologist Rogers Brubaker and his collaborators (Brubaker et al. 2004) has made use of theories in cognitive psychology and anthropology to challenge traditional approaches to ethnicity, nationhood, and race that view them as substantial groups or entities with clear boundaries, interests, and agency. Rather, he treats them as different ways of seeing the world, based on universal cognitive mechanisms, such as categorizing the world into ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Brubaker et al. (2004) also make use of the notions of cognitive schema and stereotype, defining stereotypes as “cognitive structures that contain knowledge, beliefs, and expectations about social groups” and schemas as “representations of knowledge and information-processing mechanisms” (DiMaggio 1997). For example, Brubaker et al. (2004, 44) discuss the process of ethnicization, where ”ethnic schemas become hyper-accessible and… crowd out other interpretive schemas.”

In our article, we made use of Brubaker’s approach to ethnicity to illustrate how cognitive accounts of social phenomena need to be supplemented by traditional social scientific research methods, such as ethnographic and survey methods when we seek to understand the broader social and cultural environment in which cognitive mechanisms operate. For example, in their case study of Cluj, a Romanian town with a significant Hungarian minority, Brubaker et al. (2006) found that while public discourse was filled with ethnic rhetoric, ethnic tension was surprisingly scarce in everyday life. By collecting data with interviews, participant observation, and group discussions, they were able to identify cues in various situations that turned a unique person into a representative of an ethnic group. Importantly, this result could not be achieved simply by studying the universal cognitive mechanisms of stereotypes, schemas, and categorization, since these mechanisms serve merely as the vehicles of ethnic representations, and they do not teach us about the culture-specific contents that these vehicles carry. We refer the reader to our article for more discussion of the complementarity of social scientific and cognitive approaches to ethnicity (Sarkia et al. 2020, 15-17).


Bechtel W (2009) “Looking down, around, and up: mechanistic explanation in psychology.” Philosophical Psychology 22(5): 543–564.

Brubaker R, Loveman M and Stamatov P (2004) “Ethnicity as cognition.” Theory and Society​ 33(1): 31–64.

Brubaker R, Feischmidt M, Fox J, Grancea L (2006) Nationalist Politics and Everyday Ethnicity in a Transylvanian Town. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Carpenter M, Svetlova M (2016) “Social development.” In: Hopkins B, Geangu E, Linkenauer S (eds) Cambridge Encyclopedia of Child Development. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 415–423.

DiMaggio P (1997) “Culture and cognition.” Annual Review of Sociology 23: 263-287.

Herrmann E, Call J, Hernandez-Loreda, M, Hare B, and Tomasello, M (2007). “Humans have evolved specialized skills of social cognition: the cultural intelligence hypothesis.” Science 317: 1360-1366.

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Ren Y and Argote L (2011) “Transactive memory systems 1985–2010: An integrative framework of key dimensions, antecedents, and consequences.” The Academy of Management Annals 5(1): 189–229.

Sarkia M, Kaidesoja T, and Hyyryläinen (2020). “Mechanistic explanations in the cognitive social sciences: lessons from three case studies.” Social Science Information. Online first (open access). https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0539018420968742

Sutton J, Harris C.B., Keil P.G. and Barnier A.J. 2010. “The psychology of memory, extended cognition and socially distributed remembering.” Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 9(4), pp. 521-560.

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Wegner DM, Giuliano T and Hertel P (1985) “Cognitive interdependence in close relationships.” In: Ickes WJ (ed) Compatible and Incompatible Relationships. New York: Springer, pp. 253–276.

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